Patriots' Cassel emerging as team MVP

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- All of those Little League World Series, Chatsworth High and career backup references should be shelved.

Matt Cassel is an NFL quarterback. And he is starting to play like the most valuable player on a team that happens to be tied for first place in the AFC East without Tom Brady, its top three running backs and a defensive captain.

Three weeks ago, many would have scoffed at the thought of Cassel outplaying Trent Edwards, but that's what happened Sunday at Gillette Stadium, where the New England Patriots beat the Buffalo Bills 20-10.

Cassel was ridiculed because of his inexperience, a novice compared to the iconic Brady. Doom was predicted for the reigning AFC champs.

But Cassel has helped lead the Patriots to a 6-3 record. It's plausible Brady would have them in the same position -- although his passing stats might be more extravagant.

"He was criticized greatly," Patriots guard Logan Mankins. "I would rather have Matt than about 99 percent of the quarterbacks in the league. He's playing great. We're winning games with him. He's doing everything asked of him."

Cassel is the most underrated player in the AFC East. He has been steadily improving and is allowing offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to open up the playbook more and more each week.

Cassel is calmer.

"I think, early on, the heart rate was definitely through the roof, especially when you get into that first quarter and there's obviously the adrenaline that goes along with playing this game," Cassel said. "But as the weeks go on, you kind of get into a routine and start to realize how to manage yourself.

"It's a little bit easier now than it was earlier in the season."

He got off to a sharp start against the Bills, finished strong and played well in between.

With the Patriots going to a spread offense and Cassel playing out of the shotgun, he completed 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards. He also ran for 22 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown scramble on their first possession.

On New England's final meaningful series, he orchestrated a 19-play, 92-yard drive that took 9:08 off the clock and sucked the air out of the Bills.

"That last drive was awesome," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said.

Cassel completed five of his seven passes on the drive for 57 yards. All but one of his completions was for a first down.

"He's getting better and better each week," Bills cornerback Terrence McGee said. "He's a good quarterback. He didn't try to force anything. He took what we gave him, whether it was a short crossing route or a short route. Then he also took his chances going deep.

"He controlled the game."

Edwards, who looked like a blossoming Pro Bowler a few games back, had another bad game. He completed 13 of 23 passes for 120 yards, a garbage-time touchdown and two bad interceptions.

Cassel, however, had the benefit of a running game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 105 yards and a touchdown, while Bills running back Marshawn Lynch managed only 46 yards.

The Patriots had the ball for 37 minutes, 40 seconds.

One might think Cassel would be leaning hard on superstar Randy Moss, but little Wes Welker has been the security blanket. So much so, in fact, that Welker broke an NFL record Sunday by catching at least six passes in each of the first nine games.

Cassel peppered Welker all afternoon. Welker finished with 10 receptions for 107 yards, both season-highs, even though the Bills had starting cornerback Jabari Greer shadowing him in the slot and moved rookie Reggie Corner outside.

"We're getting there," Welker replied when asked if it was as easy and pitch and catch. "He's doing a great job of really just understanding and studying the defenses."

The game sure does get easier when defenses aren't disrupting much.

Opponents sacked Cassel 28 times through his first seven games, more than they dropped Brady all last year. The Patriots have allowed just one sack over their past two games, with the Bills getting to Cassel early in the fourth quarter and forcing him to fumble.

Cassel's development has been undeniable. He has gone from wide-eyed reliever to emerging leader. As special teams ace Larry Izzo noted, it's a mighty big comparison to make, but there are Brady similarities there.

"We see it all the time," Izzo said of Cassel. "This is the same guy we've been seeing in practice for three or four years. It's not a shock. This guy has a lot of ability. He has a strong arm. He can make plays with his feet. He's smart. He cares about what he's doing.

"You see what he does on the field and his presence in the pocket. He's making some big throws. He understands the quarterback position. He's been playing behind Tom for a long time. I think you're going to see a guy that is going to continue to grow as a player."